Colonel Hatfield sees that the biggest problem of going to Mars resides in the fact that with conventional, chemical rockets the trip would take anywhere from six months to a year. The round trip would likely last for three years, which causes an immense problem sustaining a crew for the long term against the harsh conditions of space.
On Climate Change
Hatfield also seems to be a skeptic of the notion that the Earth is going to be destroyed anytime soon due to climate change. Absent some immediate threat, such as a meteor strike, we should not be in any rush to get to Mars.
The former Canadian astronaut is, on the other hand, a firm supporter of going back to the moon(2). He suggested that, at least initially, the moon will be like Antarctica, with crews of scientists and business people making lengthy stays on Earth’s nearest neighbor to do research and start commercial enterprises, such as lunar mining. He is also hopeful that the cost of commercial space travel will come down enough to make it available for more people.
Hadfield’s thoughts on the “next logical step” for space exploration seem to be in keeping with many of the people advising President Donald Trump on space policy(3). The Trump administration is keenly interested in the commercial possibilities of mining the moon.
The moon also represents opportunities for space accomplishments that can take place during the Trump presidency. The moon can be a testing ground for technology that can later be used on Mars. Lunar water can be refined into rocket fuel for use by spacecraft headed for deep space destinations like Mars. The European Space Agency and China are in talks to build a joint “Moon Village.”(4)
On the other hand, NASA is still committed to its Journey to Mars(5) that would have astronaut boots on the Red Planet by the late 2030s. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that he can get people on Mars by 2024-25 and can build a city on that world that eventually will sustain a million people(6).
On the other hand, Musk, while he is rightly celebrated as a commercial space pioneer, has had a tendency to over-promise. He has recently pushed back the Red Dragon uncrewed probe he proposed for 2018 to 2020(7). NASA’s Mars effort is considered as ambitious as it is underfunded.
The development of more advanced propulsion technology could put Mars more into reach. NASA has been working on nuclear-powered rockets since the 1960s-era NERVA project. If a nuclear rocket could be developed in time for a 2030s voyage to Mars(8), the journey would take weeks instead of months.
In any case, how and when we get to Mars will largely depend on how much we are prepared to spend on the project. A neck or nothing race to Mars is very unlikely. A few billion dollars more a year could go a long way toward developing propulsion technology, setting up a rocket fuel refinery and depot on the moon, and doing all the other things that need to happen before the first footsteps are made on Mars. The day that happens will be a historic event, much like the first moon landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.
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